starring: rena owen, james rolleston, vinnie bennet, and miriama mcdowell
REVIEWER: nick tonkin
A biopic of the trailblazing Maori leader, Dame Whina Cooper, whose extraordinary life saw her break gender boundaries, champion the rights of Maori, and fight for the land - all the while staying true to her heart and her beliefs.
Whina is a biographical film that explores the life of Dame Whina Cooper, an incredibly important figure in New Zealand’s history. Therefore the film bears the duty of fairly representing such a prominent and revered Māori leader, but also to present in an engaging way her life to an audience that may not otherwise be familiar with her and her achievements.
Thankfully, the writer/directors Paula Whetu Jones (Waru) and James Napier Robertson (The Dark Horse) with writer James Lucas have produced an affecting and powerful work that in combination with fantastic performances by leads Rena Owen and Miriama McDowell far exceeds these duties, resulting in a film that ultimately may join the pantheon of great New Zealand cinema.
Whina Cooper led a fascinating and impactful life, and Whina’s filmmakers made an interesting choice to explore it largely from two different time periods. Miriama McDowell portrays a younger Whina across a large period of her life, and Rena Owen as the older matriarch in the time leading up to the famed Māori land march from the far North of the country to Parliament in Wellington.
Such an approach could have felt disjointed if handled with less care, but Whina deftly manages to avoid this by instead combining the events of Cooper’s life with a touch of dramatic licence to create a film that covers so much yet still feels grounded and earnest, and also accessible to audiences new to Dame Cooper’s story.
Rena Owen and Miriama McDowell both deserve great recognition for their performances, creating characters separated by time and experience, but still readily recognisable as the same woman informed and motivated by the lessons of her youth; driven towards ever higher goals. Their work allows for Whina to reach the dramatic and emotional highs that the plot drives towards, with strong support from Vinnie Bennett as William Cooper, Whina Cooper’s husband.
Whina is an affecting, heartbreaking film about a fascinating figure from Aotearoa’s history, put together with great skill by talented filmmakers and crowned with wonderful performances by Rena Owen and Miriama McDowell. It is absolutely worth your time, even for newcomers to Dame Whina Cooper’s story.